Sunday, April 12, 2009

Secret Societies: An Unbiased History of Our Desire for Secret Knowledge

I've never understood why folks belong to secret societies. What's the point of esoteric words, secret handshakes and clubs?

David V. Barrett's Secret Societies: An Unbiased History of Our Desire for Secret Knowledge (2007), didn't help me understand esoterica any better. But it was a good read nonetheless. Ranging from Pythagoras and gnosticism through the Renaissance alchemists and neo-Platonists to Freemasons and the KKK, Barrett debunks the fantasy that there is a secret cabal with hidden knowledge passed from hand to hand since the beginning of time. Of course, for those of us with a mundane case of mind, such a debunking was not necessary.

The more interesting question, and one which Barrett does not really address, is why we assume there is a coherent internal narrative structure to being itself. We seem constructed in such a way that we cannot help but look for deeper laws and rhythms in the fabric of the chaos apparent all around us. Why is that? What fear drives us to conceive fanciful origins and imagine impossible endings? Sufficient unto the moment is the evil therein, I say.

I found Barrett's treatment of the Knights Templar and Arthurian romance particulary fascinating. The notion of a noble warrior appeals, even if there is no Holy Grail. His description of the origins of Tarot cards was also illuminating. Despite these flashes of insight, the book disappoints. Barrett really wanted to write a history of the Freemason movement; again and again he fidgets and fusses about obscure doctrinal and personality conflicts among Freemasons. To my knowledge, I've never met a Freemason. A simple bread and butter account of what they are all about would have fascinated me.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It has a useful bibliography for further research. (My idea of heaven is a library filled with annotated bibliographies and the time to follow each thread to the very end. What's the old lament? So many books, so little time?)

Check it out if you want to learn more about the secret handshake set.